Picture a tall, slim African woman with a child strapped to her back with strips of brightly colored fabric. She has two other small children who are dragging behind them baskets of clothes to be laundered. The mother stops to adjust her headdress and catches the eye of an onlooker. She flashes a beautiful white smile and then continues on with her daily chore.
This was the scene I witnessed my first summer working with refugees in 2013, but it was not in some remote African Village. It was in East Charlotte at an apartment complex off of Central Avenue.
When explaining my job to people, I often get asked if I speak the same language as my students. It is a reasonable question to address to an ESL teacher, until I explain that I work with a small class of adults from nine different countries on four different continents.
This usually snaps people to attention, and they ask, “Well, how on earth do you do that?”
“I do it with a lot of patience and a lot of visuals,” I smile.
The language barrier is most complicated when I need to reach my class by phone. Since I work with our beginner students, many of whom struggle to read and write in their own languages, I cannot send out a group text message or email blast of information for reply. On a good day, there may be someone in the home or a neighbor next door who can translate for me, but many times it is just me taking deep breaths and maintaining a sense of humor while I try to communicate.
I had not spoken to my students since March when Covid-19 abruptly shut down our English program, except for a hand full of letters I wrote and mailed to them each week until August. I was excited at the prospect of speaking to them to let them know we are going to try and open our classroom doors again at half capacity in November. It felt more like phoning friends and family than a group of pupils.
With each limited conversation, I was able to gather a bit on how they have been over the last seven months. I learned that my student from Ethiopia was expecting her third child next month. She is having another little girl to match her other daughter who looks like an African version of Cindy Lou Who from Whoville. At three years old, she has big doe-like eyes, and Kewpie doll curls above each ear.
After I announced who I was on the phone to my student from Central America she exclaimed, “Oh Teacher! It is so nice to meet you!” This is an expression in Spanish that is perfectly acceptable as a warm greeting, but it does not translate well in English. I knew exactly what she meant so I replied, “It is so nice to meet you too!”
Some things do not need to be corrected, because the message underneath is clear and needs no translation when shared between neighbors.